What can you say about Atlanta Hawks superstar forward Josh Smith? Since the Hawks drafted him 17th overall in the 2004 NBA Draft, he's been one of the league's most entertaining players—unless he's blocking your shot. The 6'9", 240-pound beast makes it look easy.
In reality, nothing came easy for Josh. His childhood was tough. But thanks to the game of basketball, together with the motivating force of his family, Josh found the fire and passion he needed to succeed—and that he still displays whenever he steps on the court.
Growing up happened early at the Smith household in Georgia. While most kids his age were worrying about their next family vacation, Josh had more serious concerns. He says, "[We had] to always worry about the lights cutting out, little things that you shouldn't have to worry about as a kid." But instead of backing down and accepting his unfortunate circumstances, Josh fought back. "That helped me a whole lot to build that fire and the energy and the motivation that I needed in order to be able to push me through those moments where I wanted to stop and quit," he says.
Josh never quit. The fire inside kept burning as he fought to make it to the next level, putting in years of hard work on the court and playing against the best young basketball players in the country. For his senior year of high school, Josh transferred to basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, where he first earned his shot blocking credentials. In the summer of 2003, he played alongside the formidable Dwight Howard on the highly coveted Atlanta Celtics AAU team.
Shortly thereafter, Josh joined another powerhouse, his hometown Atlanta Hawks, where he had to grow up fast once again. According to Hawks athletic trainer Wally Blase, "He came in as an 18-year-old out of high school. He was raw and new to everything, but he has grown and evolved so much since then, not just as a basketball player, but as a person."
Blase vividly recalls watching the young, explosive forward in his first summer league game. When an errant alley oop pass sailed four feet wide of the rim, Josh spun in midair, grabbed the ball with his left hand and completed an incredible dunk over the defense. "I wish I could find a tape of it, because I don't know if I saw what I think I saw," says Blase. "Everyone in the gym was stunned, it was an explosion in the middle of a summer league game."
Building on his amazing athleticism, Josh has steadily developed his game each year. He says, "My goals for the off-season [are] obviously to improve from what I did last year." He analyzes what he did the previous season, finds his weak points and improves on them through "hard work and dedication." He then polishes skills he's already mastered.
Josh admits that on some days he doesn't want to get out of bed. But his family continues to motivate him to stay mentally strong and continue to work. "My motivation is my family," he says. "You know how people are with their family—they love the mess out of them." He views anything less than 100 percent effort as an affront to his family. "I look at it as though I don't want to let them down," Josh says. "My mindset is that I don't want to fail my family, so I think that helps me out."
Josh's off-season labors are rewarded each year when he reports to the Hawks' pre-season camp. Blase says, "He will show up on the first day of training camp and look like he hasn't run a sprint all summer. But then he'll be the first one done with the mile and the first one done with our 16 sprints." His exemplary work ethic makes Josh a growing force in the NBA. On Feb. 2, 2010, he became the youngest player [at age 24] to reach 1,000 blocked shots. As he continues to work this off-season, there's no question that the fire that ignited within him as a young kid will continue to burn, fueling improvements in his game.
Blase sees a bright future for Josh. "He is literally one of the biggest athletic freaks I've ever seen," he says. "His ability to just turn it on to either block a shot or go up for a dunk is amazing. When the light goes on, you can't stop him. The potential is unlimited for that kid."